How to Pack Smart for Backpack Hunting

How to Pack Smart for Backpack Hunting

Backpack hunting wilderness country is the freest, most independent method there is. Nomadic in nature, it enables you to go and live where the game is without the constraints of a base camp, horses, or vehicle. However, knowing what's necessary and what's surplus can be daunting, because today's high-tech super-gear clamors to be included. Knowing what you really need is key to keeping your pack light yet effective and to maximize your mobility, safety, success, and comfort. Here's how to pack smart to keep your pack light without giving up key essentials on your next backpack hunt.


I divide my gear lists into three subcategories:


  • Items needed for safety (emergency gear)
  • Items needed for success
  • Items needed for comfort

If I must forego items to shave pounds, I do so out of the last category.

As long as I'm safe and have the gear and body fuel necessary to bring home the venison, I can live with a little discomfort. However, be aware that sometimes being comfortable is what enables success. If you can't sleep because you're too cold or uncomfortable, or if you're wet and hungry day after day, your mental drive and your physical ability both suffer. Let's take a look at each category and examine what you really need and what you can and should discard.

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ITEMS NEEDED FOR SAFETY

Space blanket? Tourniquet? Compact splint? Trauma shears? Ham radio? Nope. Throw all that out.

As is so often said, your mind is your most critical survival tool. Add a waterproof lighter and/or matches and a pocketknife, and you've got what it takes. With your wits about you, you can create shelter and warmth. You can sterilize water and signal for help. You can splint a fracture, whittle a crutch, and tear and sterilize strips of cloth for a bandage. Throw in a length of 550 Paracord, and you can set snares, make a tourniquet, or braid a rifle sling.

When I was guiding big-game hunters professionally, I carried a substantial first-aid kit with all the gadgets, because I was expected to and — more to the point — I was responsible for the clients with me. Now my kit contains four dedicated survival items:

  • Waterproof lighter and/or matches
  • 50 feet of 550 Paracord (also doubles for hunting tasks)
  • Leatherman tool (with which I can — and have — bone-out game if need be)
  • Two extra-large contractor-grade trash bags

Necessity is the mother of invention, and there's little that can't be done with the first three items. The last item (it's critical to get the contractor-grade trash bags) is good for myriad tasks — raingear, bivy, submerging meat in a cold creek on a hot day or keeping your pack and rifle or a down sleeping bag dry.

Occasionally, depending on season and location, I add three small things: ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, and sunscreen. The latter two are particularly important in heat, because scratches fester quickly and overexposure to the sun can disable both mental and physical performance.

Finally, access to satellites offers the promise of timely help, and while a savvy outdoorsman can survive weeks with the above gear, why do so if a SPOT beacon or similar device can bring the cavalry in a matter of hours? If you feel safer carrying one, then by all means do so.

ITEMS NEEDED TO SUCCEED

This is basically a list of camping and hunting gear, so it's much more difficult to narrow down. The best approach is this: If you question whether you need it, you probably don't.

PACK

Without a comfortable, dependable pack, your hunt will fail. Premium packs cost, and they're worth every penny. External frame packs are the best for packing extreme weight, such as moose quarters, but internal-frame packs are lighter, more maneuverable, and quieter. The lightest packs offer extra mobility at the expense of a bit of durability. KUIU is arguably the best of the lightweight lot. However, there are many great options from companies like Cabela's, Mystery Ranch, Alps Outdoorz, and others.

Get a pack that properly fits your torso length (adjustable packs are not as comfortable as a non-adjustable pack that fits you perfectly) and has a comfortable, generous hip belt. Learn to adjust the suspension straps properly.

RIFLE & SCOPE

Don't let the success of your hunt ride on a cheap, unreliable, or inaccurate rifle. A quality setup will put bullets exactly where you aim them and won't let you down at the moment of truth.

AMMUNITION

I carry about 30 rounds, not because I expect to shoot more than one or two at game, but because wilderness hunters fall and scopes get bumped. Having extra ammo to rezero a scope has saved many a wilderness hunt.

KNIFE

Light, razor sharp, and comfortable in the hand. Lots of options exist; my personal go-to is a $25 Buck PakLite Caper Knife that weighs only 1.1 ounces.

BINOCULAR

Buy a full step better than the best you can afford. Strained finances and marital angst will pass, and the premium glass will remain: revealing more game, causing less eyestrain, and lasting a lifetime.

TOPO MAP OR GPS?

I'm just old-fashioned enough to like to have a 7.5-minute geological survey paper map of my hunt area and, if I don't know the region, a familiar GPS. Pay the price for a membership to OnXmaps and load the maps to your GPS before you leave.

This handy application shows public land boundaries, land owners with contact information, topo maps, and more.

COMFORTABLE BOOTS

Blisters will shut your mobility right down. Be sure your boots not only fit well, but also are broken in — and I don't mean with a Saturday morning stroll around the park. Wear them day in, day out for at least two weeks before your hunt. Also, heavy boots are hard on knees — wear the lightest boots you can find that still offer the quality and support you need.

I use three vastly different boots: Danner Tachyon ($140, 26 oz.) in hot, dry environments; Muck Pursuit Shadow ($265, 48 oz.) for wet weather and marshy terrain; and my favorites: Lowa Hunter GTX Evo Extreme ($450, 72 oz.) for treacherous, technical mountain terrain.

CLOTHING

You need layers adequate to keep you warm or cool during any temperature extremes you can logically expect during your hunt. What you really don't need is to pack more than necessary — an almost universal transgression among neophyte backpack hunters. Fresh underwear? One pair. Change of clothes? Whatever are you talking about? What you will want, however, is a spare pair of premium wool socks. Throw in a puffy jacket. It can double to keep you warm or as a pillow.

FOOD

The final piece of the performance-for-success puzzle is lightweight, high-octane food. Carry enough freeze-dried meals, dried fruit, jerky, and nuts for the expected duration of your hunt plus a day, and don't expect to charge up mountains on minimum calorie counts. Fuel your body like the abused machine it surely will be and it will last longer. Finally, always carry at least a liter of water as well as a water purification device or tablets.

HEADLAMP

For navigating a deadfall jungle in the dark of night, with 110 pounds of elk meat on your back, in a pouring rain. (Yes, I've been there.) Savvy backpack hunters always carry two in case one dies or the buddy helping carry your elk forgot his.

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ITEMS NEEDED FOR COMFORT

TENT OR BIVY

Depending on how light you want to go, opt for a premium quality bivy sack (the lightest option), a compact single-wall tent (the best compromise of comfort and one-man portability), or a double-wall tent split between you and a hunting partner (the warmest, driest but heaviest option). KUIU, Big Agnes, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, and several others all offer suitable shelters.

SLEEPING BAG

Unless you hunt rainforest conditions, do yourself a favor and get a premium down bag from KUIU, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, or the like. It will weigh half what a synthetic bag does while keeping you twice as warm. They're expensive, but they last forever — which can't be said about synthetic insulation. Just be aware that if it gets soaked, it won't insulate. Keep it dry.

SLEEPING PAD

Restful sleep is critical to continuing strenuous, challenging physical activity, particularly when your body aches from packing a heavy load. Pads by Therm-a-Rest, Big Agnes, Alps Outdooz, and Klymit are excellent, but my favorites are by ExPed, a Scandinavian mountaineering company with numerous international gear awards to its credit.

RAIN GEAR

Few things suck more than being soddenly wet and chilled for days on end. A pound of upper-crust raingear will pay dividends in wet-weather cheer. Check out KUIU, First Lite, or Sitka for lightweight, durable rain gear.

LIGHTWEIGHT STOVE

Hot food provides both mental and physical therapy after a brutal day of wilderness hunting. Pair a premium lightweight stove, such as a Camp Chef Stryker, with a titanium spork and you're set to enjoy wilderness culinary comfort. Don't forget compact, lightweight fuel cells.

BUG REPELLANT

Spring bear hunts, post-monsoon elk hunts, and all Alaskan hunts often involve mass quantities of kamikaze mosquitoes determined to get a piece of you. Protect yourself or become a raving lunatic in the wilderness.

A little spray bottle heavy on DEET works well; a healthier but heavier solution is Thermacell's $25 MR150. If you're packing a stove, add a four-ounce, $40 ThermaCell Backpacker, which will provide up to 90 hours of bug-free camp relief from one four-ounce gas canister.

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